7th October 2020
Unspoken is a play showing in Oxford this October (22nd-26th), combining theatre with a research project on stammering. We spoke to producer Catherine Woolley to find out more.
Tell us about Unspoken
Unspoken is fast-paced, dynamic and surreal at points, but it’s a production with a powerful story to tell. It explores the life of Alex on the evening he's going to propose to his girlfriend. Since he first met her, Alex has worked hard to hide his stammer from her, but that evening he is going to talk about it.
The show revolves around the people who have influenced his life and his relationship with his stammer. As we dive into Alex's memories, we get the chance to understand the impact of his stammer across his lifespan and how it has influenced the choices he's made. Throughout the show, Alex is stalked by the shadowy figure of the 'Wrestler', his personification of his stammer.
It's a show about acceptance, with Alex's journey more about accepting his stammer as part of his identify than it is about overcoming it.
Unspoken is more than just a theatre performance – I understand there's an aspect of audience participation. Can you explain more?
In September 2018 I started a Masters in research at UCL, focusing on the relationship between attitudes towards stammering and theatre. Following on from research carried out by Trudy Stewart and colleagues (listed below), I was interested to explore further whether theatre can change people's thoughts about communication difficulties. Before the show begins, we invite the audience to fill out a 5-minute questionnaire to get an understanding of their thoughts about stammering. After the show, we ask them to complete another quick survey to see what (if anything) has changed. We are also going to look at the thoughts of the cast involved in the show to get their opinions and thoughts.
After each performance, there'll be a short Q&A session for interested audience members with myself, the director and members of the cast, so they can learn more about the process and performances.
Update: Find out what the effect the play had on the audience, in Catherine's article 'Stammering and the power of theatre', and our page 'Watch the play Unspoken'.
You are also a Speech & Language Therapist and also have a keen interest in the theatre. What have you taken from your work in the theatre to your professional life?
Actors are usually interested in the thoughts and feelings of others, helping us to understand the characters that we play. We’re naturally quite nosy people! That sense of empathy is something that I bring to the children and families that I work with to try and understand what they are going through.
In 2017 I ran a project in Oxford where we used Shakespeare's The Tempest to develop and teach social skills to children with Autism. Watching them grow in confidence and find new ways to communicate was an invaluable experience. Once you get inside the mind of a child with Autism, you can begin to find the ways to help them understand a world that feels confusing or terrifying. The creative skills I use in therapy and theatre often feel like they go hand in hand for me.
What do you think makes Unspoken such a powerful piece of theatre?
The play was written in collaboration with specialist Speech & language therapist Dr Trudy Stewart as well as the local stammering community. While everyone's experiences are unique, it has helped to ground the show in situations that affect the lives of people across the country. We have an incredibly talented group of actors, and through them, Alex's thoughts, emotions and memories have already begun to come to life.
In a different production of the play Unspoken, producer Catherine Woolley ran a piece of research, asking audience members if watching it had changed their perceptions of stammering. You can read about her findings in her article 'Stammering and the power of theatre'.
Current research on the impact of theatre on attitudes to stammering
Stewart, T., Linklater, J. & Railton, P. (2017). Beyond Understanding: the use of theatre to change public attitudes to stammering. ISAD online conference.
Stewart, T. (in press). Unspoken: a social experiment in changing theatre audiences' attitudes to stammering. In Fluency Disorders, Vol. 2. Eds., K. Wesierska & M. Witkowski.
Linklater, J., Stewart, T. & Railton, P. (2018). Acting in Unspoken: changing actors' attitudes to stammering. European Symposium on Fluency Disorders, Antwerp.